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Volume 723: debated on Wednesday 15 December 2010


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what proposals they have to change the national census due in March 2021.

My Lords, the development of alternatives to the traditional census is being taken forward by the National Statistician. She has established the Beyond 2011 project to look at this issue and will make proposals in 2014.

My noble friend’s Answer is interesting, but is he aware of the importance of consistency of census data during the past 200 years? The census is used by millions of our citizens to trace their ancestry, let alone by local and national government and other organisations which look at trends. Will he assure us that, whatever is looked at, we will get a census in 11 years’ time and that the Government will not rely on databases, which are notoriously inaccurate, particularly when one is trying to establish who lives where?

The census results are used extensively by many public and private sector organisations and by many private citizens for a wide variety of purposes. Continuity from one census to another is very important for understanding changes in society. However, I cannot give my noble friend any reassurance because it would pre-empt the outcome of the independent work being taken forward by the National Statistician.

My Lords, does the Minister recognise the huge interest taken in the information contained in the census? Genealogy is a fast growing hobby which has the added benefit of encouraging the more mature of our citizens to engage with computers. The USA has released census information after 72 years without any apparent deleterious effect. In the light of this, will the Minister examine the current government policy of not releasing census information for 100 years?

The House is very enthusiastic on this subject.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Young, for his question. I understand that the restriction is traditional. The new project to look beyond 2011 will include all these aspects. It is particularly important for many people that they have an opportunity to trace their ancestors. We have to understand that we live now in an IT age; indeed, where is the written letter and where are our written documents? It is going to be much more difficult for historians of the future to find the evidence of our lives today.

Perhaps I should declare an interest in that I used to be responsible for the census, I do not know how many years ago. There is no question but that the traditional census is of enormous importance for the country to understand our population, migration and much else. I am delighted that next year’s census is going ahead, as planned. That is good news. As to the future, however, there are now serious alternatives which have been followed and adopted successfully in a number of other countries. Most Scandinavian countries and Germany now use alternatives, which is what is on the cards.

Will the Minister assure us that following those alternatives, which are very complicated, will have full support and collaboration from the Government?

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Moser, for his question and contribution. He speaks from a great deal of experience in this subject. The most important thing is to emphasise that proposals will come to Parliament before any developments are taken forward. One of the difficulties with the current census is that it is usually way out of date by the time it is actually published. We live in a very mobile society, as we all know, and to try to get a dynamic model would produce considerable advantages in the allocation of resources and the ability of government properly to address the issues of the day.

My Lords, can my noble friend say how much the last census cost, what his estimate is for the next census, and whether he would dare hazard a guess at the cost of the 2021 census?

I do not have the figure for the last census but I have the current estimate for the 2011 census. It is £482 million, which is a very large amount. It includes the extrapolation of the figures and the development of figures after the actual census has been taken. It is believed that it could cost as much as £1 billion in 2021.

Given that the British public are very well able to answer questions on the census form for themselves, does the Minister agree that any campaign, such as that which I gather is being undertaken by the British Humanist Association and is specifically aimed at telling people how to answer the question about religious affiliation, is at best inappropriate, and at worst likely to distort census-on-census comparisons?

I am sure the whole House will agree that the integrity of the process is important. I note the right reverend Prelate’s observations.

My Lords, why cannot the census questions be amended in such a way whereby we can secure far higher levels of electoral registration, particularly when in the future we are going over to the new system of individual registration?

There is no interrelationship between the electoral register and the census at the moment. I do not know whether the National Statistician has considered that possibility, but both act under totally different powers vested in them by Parliament. The confidentiality of one list, as opposed to the other, must be respected.

My Lords, since the budget for the forthcoming census is approximately twice that for the census conducted in 2001, and since 50 per cent of the present costs are to be met by outsourcing, will the Government not assume that handing over to other agencies is necessarily going to be the way to make substantial public savings? Will the Minister also recognise that it is important for Parliament and the public to know what the considerations are that will be borne in mind when the recommendations are made in 2014? Can he ask that that be a fully transparent process?

I assure the House that it will be a fully transparent process. It is accuracy that lies at the heart of any census programme, and connected to that is the response rate. For the last census, the response rate was 94 per cent, but in some parts of the country it was lower than that. For example, in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, it was as low as 68 per cent, and adjustments had to be made to ensure that the figures accurately reflected the situation. Much of the effort this time is going into ensuring that we have a much more substantial response rate and that in no part of the country is it less than 80 per cent. The hope is that with a more dynamic model that might be improved.